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January 10, 2004

Demon Barber

In the few years that typically separate my visits to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, I forget how much I hate the place. Despite a late-90s refurbishment that was supposed to make it more accessible and cater to a broader audience, it remains the most (perhaps the only) conspicuous bastion of smug, snobbish, complacent, self-satisfied, lazy, flabby, inbred and artistically bankrupt toff culture in London.

Simply as a theatrical space, it has little to recommend it. The vast proscenium stage dwarfs even the most overblown performers, the seats are uncomfortable, the sightlines poor. Add to that the outrageous over-pricing, the self-fulfilling corporate scarcity that justifies it, and the dismal company in which you are likely to find yourself (you can hardly swing a cat without hitting a Tory MP), and things are off to a pretty bad start before you even get to the show itself.

Sweeney Todd is a 1979 Broadway musical, which is a bit of radical departure for the Royal Opera; no doubt there were a pursed lips and raised eyebrows at the Athenæum when it was announced. "A musical? My dear fellow, how vulgar. Whatever next? Greyhound racing in the interval bar?" But the piece is quite operatic and has been well handled by opera companies in the past -- notably Opera North, whose production a couple of years ago was near-perfect, in many ways better than the Hal Prince original.

The Royal Opera is not exactly a bad company, but it is (in my relatively limited experience) pretty flaccid and hidebound, and just hopelessly unsuited to doing something like this. Most of the singers are of the classical "belt it out and never mind the consonants" school, which is all very well with Verdi and Wagner but gets in a right tangle with Sondheim's intricate, tongue-twisting lyrics. Unusually for Covent Garden, the show was miked, which must have given the singers a bit more leeway, but even so everything was taken at a positively lethargic tempo for most of the night, dragged out to make time for a few more words. On the rare occasions that things speeded up, everything was blurted out in a mad rush with little attention to the specifics. To further underline the problem of enunciation, there were also intrusive surtitles, which made a constant hash of the carefully timed jokes and moments of high melodrama.

The production (imported, like the Donmar's incomparably better Pacific Overtures, from Chicago) was disappointingly vague and amorphous, with lots of big billowing curtains and not much in the way of a set. Various conceits, like the cages that constantly surround Johanna, were unintentionally hilarious; and the clumsy attempts to shock the matronly audience -- in a piece that should be shocking without even trying -- seemed flat and misguided: especially the silhouetted partygoers at Judge Turpin's masked ball miming masturbation as he molests Lucy during Poor Thing. In a show full of overwhelming emotion, nearly every powerful moment was just frittered away.

Sweeney is one of my favourite Sondheim pieces -- and therefore one of my favourite works of art in the whole world -- and it would be hard to make it unwatchable. I enjoyed seeing it again, and being reminded of various things I'd forgotten (there was one bit near the end that I don't remember at all, that has Lucy finding a memento of Johanna in the barber shop and singing a reprise of one of the themes from Poor Thing that makes clear who she is -- Faustus, does this ring any bells?). But this production is, frankly, rubbish, and I would urge anyone who doesn't already know and love the show to avoid it at all costs.
Posted by matt at January 10, 2004 06:51 PM


What you mention rings a bell but it's been a while since I've looked closely at Sweeney so I'm not the most reliable source at the moment. I'll check my script if I can find it in the mess of my files.

But why were there surtitles at Covent Garden for a piece written and performed in English? Were the singers that unintelligible? In which case better to scrap the whole thing and do another Fledermaus or something.

Posted by: Faustus, M.D. at January 11, 2004 05:23 PM

No, the singers weren't *that* unintelligible. The show would have been comprehensible without surtitles, although some of the detail would have be lost. Their removal would have been an improvement, really.

I think they were there because of a fundamental lack of confidence in the production. Understandable, given its mediocrity, but surtitles were not the answer.

Posted by: matt at January 12, 2004 12:33 AM

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